Editorial: First up, an Olympics of public skepticism on the 2024 Games

Last modified: Saturday, March 28, 2015

The state placed a help-wanted ad this week related to having Boston host the Olympics in 2024. The help that’s needed: an independent accounting of how the games would affect the state and its capital city.

We’re glad officials see the need for answers. Boston 2024, fresh from awarding its leaders big salaries to pursue the Olympics bid, is feeling the heat of public doubt and has reiterated pledges the venture will not stick taxpayers with the bill.

Two weeks ago in this space, we questioned whether that financial risk was properly understood. This week, Gov. Charlie Baker joined with Statehouse leaders, including Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg of Amherst, to seek a consultant able to scrutinize Boston 2024’s proposal, as public support erodes.

Rosenberg said the assignment is to “do a deep dive” on the plan, zeroing in on the risk of cost overruns that must be paid by state and local governments.

When that deep dive comes back, even an earnest effort might not go deep enough. That’s because the would-be games are nearly a decade away and Boston 2024’s plans will continue to evolve. In past games, people in host cities have been stuck with costs in the billions of dollars. In light of that, the $250,000 from the governor’s budget allocated for the study is money well spent.

On the other hand, it’s not as if the vagaries of Olympic financing pose new questions. Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist pointed out this week that lots of studies already on shelves have detailed what can go wrong.

One of the most recent, from the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts, brackets good and bad news. While that study projects that $4 billion worth of construction could create 4,000 jobs in the trades between 2018 and 2023, it noted that “there is extensive research suggesting modern Olympic Games go significantly over budget.”

Despite Boston 2024’s promise not to count on public money, except for infrastructure improvements, the Donahue report calls for that pledge “to be closely monitored over time. … most Olympics have had cost overruns in the multi-billions of dollars compared to original budgets.”

No new study can unwrite findings of older analyses. The risk is that the lure of temporary jobs, the real but time-limited economic boost of operational spending and the glamour of the games will blind decision-makers to the possibility of saddling Massachusetts with Olympic costs for years.

As of Friday, a non-scientific poll on GazetteNET found sentiment running strongly against hosting the Olympics a decade from now, with 10 percent in favor (33 votes) and 74 percent opposed (237 votes). Another 15 percent said they would back the plan only if no public money is used.

In the Boston area, support for the games has been dropping since January. A poll of Boston residents commissioned by the public radio station WBUR found a razor-thin majority in favor in January (51 percent), but that fell to 44 percent in February and 36 percent this month.

Some of the defections are surely driven by a public perception that those associated with Boston 2024 are feathering their nests, after the group released information on salaries following a call to do so by Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

The group’s CEO, Richard Davey, a former Patrick administration transportation secretary, is earning $300,000 a year. Former Gov. Deval Patrick himself was listed at a daily rate of $7,500 for spreading global cheer about a Boston Olympics — a fee he now says he will decline. John Fish, the Boston 2024 chairman, is chief executive of a major construction firm.

In another effort to win popular support, leaders of Boston 2024 this week reversed course and said they do not oppose a statewide referendum on hosting the games. Further, they said that if the vote failed statewide, or even just in Boston, they would drop the bid.

Amid all this, the U.S. Olympic Committee is standing by its choice of Boston. Though the debate dims the luster of the games, the committee says it supports a referendum, with a spokesman saying, “Great achievements are often preceded by great skepticism.” The referendum would be on the November 2016 presidential-year ballot. Boston 2024 has even said it would help gather signatures.

Between now and then, expect a major league political campaign in support of the games, akin to the drive in save the Legislature’s casino gambling law — another idea in search of financial validation.

TV spots next year will seek to stir voters’ hearts to support the games. What state residents deserve is an ironclad financing plan that forbids a public bailout.


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